When Githa Sowerby’s play Rutherford and Son was first performed, in 1912, it was compared to the enlightened social dramas of Ibsen, writes Alan Payne.
Then it was discovered that it was the debut play of a woman dramatist – her forenames having been reduced to K. G. to disguise her gender. This caused confusion and dismay in those of a traditional cast of mind, and her subsequent plays received less attention.
There’s no doubt that it’s a landmark play, whose themes of family and industrial discord still resonate more than a hundred years later.
As directed by Caroline Steinbeis at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, it’s a revelation. The title refers to a Geordie firm of glassmakers, who have built up their business by hard work and thrift. Rutherford himself has followed in the footsteps of his father, and hopes that one of his sons will do the same. But neither has shown the required inclination or aptitude. His daughter he has kept in virtual servitude. His grown-up sons have remained in thrall to his power.
Owen Teale as the cold and intolerant patriarch gives a towering performance which never descends into caricature – he makes Rutherford’s increasing isolation both touching and tragic. But it’s the women who give the play its particular emotional intensity – especially Laura Elphinstone as Janet, Rutherford’s long-suffering but rebellious daughter; and
Danusia Samal as Mary, the astute and resourceful wife of Rutherford’s eldest son, an effete, emotionally damaged man who has come up with an industrial invention he believes will make him the equal of his father. At the beginning the stage is occupied by Janet, Mary, and Ann, Rutherford’s elder maiden sister, a witty but bitter and divisive presence. It’s as if the house belongs to them – until, of course, Rutherford returns from work.
The stage design, together with the lighting and sound effects, create an atmosphere both oppressive and mesmerising. The ‘and Son’ of the title conceals an unforgettable twist. The play is as powerful as Arthur Miller’s poetic dramas where family conflicts mirror larger social divisions.
Rutherford and Son runs until Saturday, February 23.